Ohio bill seeks to punish cyberstalkers, protect victims

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Victims of cyberstalking and other forms of online harassment will now have some protections under a bill headed to the Ohio governor’s desk.

The measure comes about 10 years after a suburban Cleveland woman says she found little legal recourse after someone threatened her in emails and faxes and created a website to harass her and her husband. At one point, she said, the site featured a picture of figures of the couple hanging in effigy.

Lori Siwik, of Broadview Heights, said she and her husband filed two police reports and approached local prosecutors about their situation.

“They just said that there was nothing they could do until, you know, potentially, we suffered some bodily injury,” Siwik said in an interview. The Siwiks, both attorneys who operate a consulting business, felt helpless.

“We had already gone to the police, we had gone to the prosecutor, and the system failed us,” Siwik said. She later reached out to her state representative’s office about updating Ohio’s laws that address stalking and telecommunications harassment.

The man who allegedly orchestrated their harassment moved away, but the Siwiks wanted a more permanent solution for themselves and others.

“I kept thinking about the fact that we went through this and there was nothing in the law to help us,” she said.

After failing to gain traction in two prior sessions, the bill to expand Ohio’s stalking and telecommunications harassment offenses cleared the Legislature on Wednesday. Republican Gov. John Kasich is expected to sign it.

The measure seeks to keep harassers from causing victims to believe that their family members will be physically or mentally harmed. Harassers would be barred from urging others to menace the victim through any form of written communication or “verbal graphic gestures.”

The bill also would prohibit a person from posting text, audio or images on a website to abuse, threaten or harass someone. Harassers couldn’t make repeated or offensive phone calls with the purpose of alarming victims during inconvenient hours.

Violators could face a first degree misdemeanor on a first offense and a fifth degree felony on each subsequent offense.

Rep. Marlene Anielski said the proposal sends a message that such menacing behavior won’t be tolerated.

“I think this gives guidance to at least law enforcement now that there is an option for them to go after the people that are creating these crimes,” said Anielski, a Walton Hills Republican.

Ohio prosecutors support the bill.

John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, told a Senate committee in November that the measure would give prosecutors more tools to address certain harassment.

“These offenses can cause substantial harm to victims and their families for no legitimate purpose,” Murphy said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio didn’t take a formal position on the bill, but the organization’s chief lobbyist, Gary Daniels, said certain phrasing in the legislation could silence speech that’s constitutionally protected under the First Amendment.

“It can’t help but be subjective in many instances,” Daniels said. “We see both sides of this.”

Anielski said victims should not have to face physical harm before action can be taken against harassers.

“Hopefully now, we can stop it,” she said.

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